31 December, 2010

The Case of the Mysteriously Manifesting Penny Dreadful: A Noir


It's a bitter cold Tuesday morning in late November I get a pass slipped in my door. The prison's property room, half-past eight. Must be another book, I think as I suck down the day's first mouthful of coffee and ponder the white slip in my hand. A half-assed smile creases my face. Happy thirty-second birthday, Byron. Looks like you're remembered.

People started gifting me books a few month ago. A real treat, that was. Before, prison rules said nobody could order me squat. If I wanted to feed my hunger for the word, I had to mail order it myself — squeeze the dough out of my inmate account. Those chuckleheads over in the state capital sure know how to cramp a fella's style. Anyway, then some genius gets the idea to have a business write the Department of Corrections a letter. Threatens to sue DOC for unfair business practices, or some such thing — what moxie! — and they drop the rule like a hot potato. All of a sudden, books are tumbling in. It's like everybody hitting triple cherries at the slots, all at once, and the dames in the mail and property rooms are sweating bullets trying to keep buckets underneath, just to keep everyone's jackpots from spilling out onto the floor. Oh sure, it slows eventually, but not before every one of those ladies get their chance to use some very unladylike language.

I've barely got time to finish off the dregs of coffee number one and brace myself for the cold. Halfway across the yard, some schmo asks if it's cold enough for me, as I'm passing him and blowing enough steam with each breath to run a locomotive to Poughkeepsie and back. There's one in every crowd, I swear. I shoot the schmo a lame smile and nod so he doesn't take it personal, then hurry on my way.

Sure enough, the package waiting is a book. The Petting Zoo. Jim Carroll, RIP. Just in time for my birthday, too. Seems one sweet tomato's still got me on her mind. Broads are really something else. I'm making a mental note to give her a ring — a call, I mean; she's hardly the settling-down type — when the woman behind the counter tells me I've got another book, from someplace else.

One look is all it takes to tell this other book's not my style. The cover's a mess of red foil embossing, grisly fonts, and some half-painted panorama of a crow and a human skull in the snow. Kafka, it ain't. Plus, I'm iffy on any book with back-cover hype that ends with an ellipsis for no apparent reason....

"You sure that's mine?" I ask.

The brunette acts like checking the packaging's some kind of chore. She smacks her gum as she shows me the envelope and says, "There's no invoice, but it's got your name on it."

I shrug and sign for my two books. Back at the housing unit, I'm defrosting, waiting on hot water for another cup of joe, and checking out my haul. The Petting Zoo was on my wish list. Hopefully it'll be everything I hoped. But this surprise novel's a funny thing. A paranormal mystery by some redheaded bestseller is far enough beyond my area of expertise that I know it's time to call in help. I take the feather-light beach read across to my neighbor. He's up on all this pulpy stuff. Maybe he can point me in the right direction. Right now, I'm stuck holding my hat.

I get to his door, the guy looks like he's been worked over in a barroom brawl with Johnny Walker and Jack Daniels. Turns out, he's just waking up. I thank my lucky stars my thirty-two still looks better than his twenty-eight, first thing in the morning. Yeah, I'm a shallow SOB.

I hold the cover up to his face like it's evidence in a murder trial. "Do you know anything about this?"

My neighbor squints and makes a noise like an angry camel.

"Is that a yes or a no? We've been through this before: use your words."

"It's the third in a series," he says, adjusting his glasses. "Who sent you this?"

"That's what I'm trying to find out. Everyone knows I don't read this stuff. I don't suppose you're interested in getting first crack at it, are you?"

"Don't try to pawn your trash off on me," he sneers. My mysterious gift gets tossed back. "You're not gonna read that, are you?"

I riffle the pages like something good's going to leap out at me. It doesn't. "It's a birthday present. Of course I'm going to read it. I won't enjoy it, but I'll read it."

"Suit yourself. I bet it was somebody who doesn't like you. Like it's a secret message of hate. Maybe from that old guy with the website — the one who's obsessed with you."

The Antibyron. That whackjob who has single-handedly waged a decade-long campaign to make me out to be the Prince of Darkness. I got life without parole, but that joker's not happy unless he can air a lot of seventeen-year-old gossip about yours truly. I guess there's no pleasing some people. Thing is, except for the time he sent me a shrewish little birthday card, a few years back, his attacks were always limited to online insults. Spending a sawbuck on a book would be out of character, but I don't put it (or much else) below him. My sleepy neighbor may be onto something.

When I get an itch, I've got to scratch. The morning's not even out when I pick up the weird little book and turn to page one. It takes all of ten seconds for me to start rolling my eyes, but the thing's not completely unreadable. The skirt who wrote it's got a real gift for cheese, that's for sure. It's hard to get how she rakes in the clams. I know she's loaded, though, what with that peach of a TV deal on her other book series. Then there's the other 600 titles she's written. The gal's definitely hungry for success and, by the look of it, hardly starving.

Every couple of pages, I gotta stop for a breath. The story's boring me silly at the same time as it turns my gut with its over-the-top plot: a psychic investigator-for-hire who feels dead people, her stepbrother lover, sadomasochistic homosexual-pedophile murderers — it's got the Antibyron's name written all over it. I force myself to keep reading. Then, halfway through, it dawns on me.

I get on the phone and call my girl Friday. She's already at her keyboard when she picks up. It's like I got a psychic of my own, ready as she is for everything.

Pleasantries dispensed, we're right down to business. I give her the name of the outfit that sent the book. "See if they'll tell you who placed the order," I say.

There's a flurry of keystrokes in the background as she types up the e-mail. She says, "This is the same place I ordered your birthday gift from. I guess you didn't get that yet, though, huh?"

What a sweetheart. She's always got me on her mind. "You're the best. No, I didn't get it. Do I get to know what it is, or are you keeping it a surprise?"

"Book of Longing. You mentioned you wanted it a few months ago."

"And you remembered? Color me impressed."

"Of course I remembered." She pauses. "Okay, the e-mail's sent. Hopefully we'll find something out. Do you think maybe it's the Antibyron? The title's creepy."

"You're the second person to suggest that. I kind of doubt he'd shell out ten bucks for something so obtuse when he can just send me another card."

"He spends money on web hosting," she fires back. Got me on that one.

The book ends in a quick but painful 280 pages — both murderers taken out, one almost-victim saved. It takes me two days. When it's done, I let it fall from my hands. Bullshit. As far as secret messages, I couldn't get anything from it. One part of the story addressed the red herring — some creepy fella in the town who's fingered by neighbors because he's antisocial. Two pages of speechifying about the innate human need for closure, how sad it is when some poor sap winds up a scapegoat, how we ought to be more careful when we go pointing at folks we think are guilty. The whole thing's a little too nail-on-the-head to my situation, and it makes me second-guess the Antibyron theory. But if it wasn't him, then who?

Not that it keeps me up at night, not knowing. It does preoccupy me when I'm trying to get some work done. A few weeks go by, and I'm still just as clueless as I was when the damn book got here. To make matters worse, the poetry collection my assistant got me still hasn't arrived. I've got other reading material, though. And there's always my writing. Much as I hate leaving matters up in the air, I gotta let this one go. Sometimes you try and still don't get the answers you're looking for, and you just have to accept it. That's life, you know?

Then it's a Wednesday night. I'm talking with my assistant, catching up on some old business about an artist — that's another story entirely — when she's out of the blue with a report on the missing Book of Longing I've been, well, longing for.

"They switched them," she says.

"Say what?"

"They switched them. The orders. The man who e-mailed back told me your order was next to someone else's and each book went in the wrong envelope."

"Wait, so someone who was expecting their third installment of this mystery series got a collection of poems and essays by Leonard Cohen, and I got their pulpy little crapfest?" I've gotta laugh at that one. "Do I need to send the book I got back to them, or what?"

"Nope. They say they're going to fix the problem. Just be patient."

"What the hell, I've waited this long."

I get off the phone and go back to my cell. The little book that caused all this distraction is buried in the very back of one of the nooks in my desk. I pull it out and look at it. Hard to believe I'd be so paranoid to think it might actually be a coded message from some obsessed jerk. I almost feel bad for misjudging the Antibyron. Almost. He didn't send me this dumb book, but he's still a sleazebag.

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